Focus in edited volumes

28 May 2018

Edited volumes are tricky to put together. Too often they arise from a conference panel that thematically may be coherent but the contributing papers are all over the place. In addition, the tendency is for the panel organizer(s) to be expected to take on the role of volume editor. That is not always the best choice.

No surprises, then, that quite a few publishers turn their noses up at edited volumes, equating them with raw conference proceedings.

That is a mistake in my opinion. Strangely, it is often faster to get a chapter peer reviewed and published in an edited volume than it is to have an article appear in a top-flight journal. Quite frequently, then, such a chapter is the fastest way for new research to get out into the public domain. Moreover, because this chapter will appear with others dealing with the same research area, its impact will likely be higher than if published as an article hidden among journal articles covering all manner of subjects.

Sadly, it is not only a lot of publishers who are blind to this situation; the research assessment bureaucrats devising points ratings in different countries for the various types of publication also often miss this important truth.

How then to improve the image of edited volumes? That will be a long, hard slog. Essentially, these collections need to be focused, and visibly so.

The second part (visibility, recognition) completely relies on the first – focus. Here is where I shall concentrate today.

To bring focus into an edited volume, especially that arising from a conference panel, I would suggest the following as a minimum:

  1. Ensure the volume editor is credible and strong, able and willing to take the hard decisions.
  2. Stamina and time are also necessary in volume editors. Sometimes, then, the combination of a well-regarded senior scholar with an energetic junior doing much of the heavy lifting works very well.
  3. Contributing chapters cannot be the same as the papers presented at the panel. Some will be unsuitable and must be (regretfully) dropped; others may need to be recruited.
  4. Moreover, all papers should be rethought in terms of them now being an integrated chapter in a focused volume. They should “talk” to the overarching themes of the volume and where possible offer concrete linkages to other chapters in the volume.
  5. There will be instances where the chapters are simply too diverse to bind the volume together of their own accord. In this situation especially – but ideally in all cases – a strong introduction to the volume is vital. Not only must this introduce the chapters to follow and draw linkages between them; it should also transcend the chapters to create a discourse that the rest of the volume talks to – in musical terms composing a riff that each solo instrument then plays in its own way.

Normally, volume editors and contributors may have met at a conference but thereafter only interact remotely – by email, conference calls and document sharing, for instance. Missed deadlines, misunderstandings and even misbehaviour are not uncommon as a result. Focus in a volume can be vastly improved, then, if everyone involved gets to met again at a workshop aimed at critiquing and refining their contributions. Sadly, lack of funding means this is a rare thing unless all of the contributors come from the same area.

Currently, I am involved in two such publication projects where funding has been found to bring all the volume contributors together at a publication workshop – and, better still, together with discussants offering immediate but detailed feedback (a superior form of peer review in some ways).

Last week I attended the workshop for one of the projects, which has its origins in a defined research programme with invited participants rather than as a conference outcome. The workshop was only the latest in several workshops held. The presentations were very encouraging, the feedback excellent; focus was everywhere. I have high hopes for the success of this volume and the EverJust Myanmar research project it is part of.

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Serious book proposals (6): ‘competing’ books

25 August 2017

Anthony Hayes has a lot of interesting thoughts and advice to offer on the world of publishing and books more generally but in particular this post in a series on book proposals is especially fine. Thanks Anthony.


Recruiting top scholars for your volume

4 July 2017

Today I was asked, “how and when does one approach a senior scholar to write a foreword or afterword for a book? My book is a highly focused edited volume, if that makes a difference in your answer.”

That is an interesting (and very relevant) question.

The first issue is what and when.

A foreword and afterword are different beasts. In reality, the first is an extended endorsement of the work; it should be solicited after acceptance (following a successful peer review). In contrast, an afterword is a contribution – of a similar vein to a concluding chapter – normally needing to be peer reviewed, hence solicited beforehand.

Then there is how to approach.

Knowing the person is always easier but otherwise it might help if you can quote someone who does (“I am writing at the suggestion of …”). Then again, I’d probably be more impressed by someone writing to me saying that THEY had thought of me because of my expertise in that area. If you can be even more specific (showing you know their stuff), all the better.

I guess the only sensible thing I have to say is don’t scare the horses.

  • An email rather than a phone call.
  • A subject line that is intriguing enough for the person to read the mail (we all kill a lot of mails we receive without reading them).
  • No suggestion you want a whole lot of work done (even if a decent foreword will take a day or two, an afterword maybe even longer).
  • In this age of viral epidemics and ransomware, no attachments (you are a stranger – so just list the contents along with a short but compelling description).

In short, think of this as sending out another book proposal but this time to a potential reader/reviewer rather than to a publisher.

And if they haven’t the time to do this, out of guilt they might be prepared to write a short endorsement to go on the back cover. Always useful.


Literary agents and their dark art

22 February 2017

As an academic publisher, I deal with all of our authors directly from the outset, often face to face (say, at a conference). There are no intermediaries (except for the occasional referral). As such, the world of literary agents and the mega-dollar book deals they are so often associated with are foreign territory for me.

Most scholarly books are aimed at a quite narrow academic market (though often with related professionals also in mind – journalists, policy makers, NGOs, businesses and the like). However, some scholars (but pitifully few) are interested in and capable of writing for, and reaching, a much broader audience (TV historians being a good example). Handled rightly, their books can sell in the tens of thousands, or more, instead in the low hundreds (as typical for many scholarly books).

If you have such a book in mind, there is probably little point in contacting me or indeed most academic publishers. You need to look elsewhere – and that is where literary agents are important.

Sure, there are exceptions (for instance, the massive bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty, was published in English by Harvard University Press). But in general such non-fiction bestsellers are not published by academic presses but by trade presses whose target audience is the general public rather than academics or professionals.

This is a glitzy, high-stakes world where the minimum acceptable print run may be 5,000 or 10,000 copies – a very different world from that of scholarly publishing. And in that world a vital role is performed by literary agents in finding and fostering new talent, in finding the right publisher, negotiating the best deal and (not least) supporting long-lasting and successful writing careers.

This is a dark art, little understood by outsiders.

Every so often I am asked by a writer about how to approach a literary agent. I shrug and point them in the direction of publications like the Literary Marketplace. Really, I have few clues if I am honest.

juliet-m

Today, I have learnt much more simply by reading a short post by Juliet Mushens in The Bookseller. Packed full of ideas and links to outside resources, it is an eye-opener.

I hope her business booms as a result.


Cover design, brutal realities

16 November 2015

Nowadays, it is rare that an academic book is seen in an actual bookstore (and, if it is, not for long). Price is a factor here (see below). There are exceptions, of course, one of them for NIAS Press being Chris Hudson’s Beyond Singapore Girl, which continues to resonate (and sell) especially in the Singaporean society it analyses.

But as discussed elsewhere the brutal reality for most books found in any bookstore is to appear spine-out – as can be seen in this line of books recently photographed in a Kinokuniya bookstore in Singapore.

Kino-bookshelf

The same goes for books found on library bookshelves.

Very few books are displayed cover-out in all their glory. In bookstores, normally full-frontal display is reserved for bestsellers or those other titles being heavily promoted (sometimes publishers pay booksellers for such special treatment, not least a premium location inside the store).

Since academic books rarely appear in bookstores, do covers matter then?

Arguably, yes. Bookstores and libraries are not the only places where books are visible. Physically they also will appear in conference exhibits, on display at the author’s home institute and certainly in her own office. But in a host of other places, a book’s cover is visible – in marketing material (catalogues, flyers, etc.), newsletters and (not least) face-out on the virtual bookshelves of all of the online bookstores.

Compare the listings on Amazon.com of the same book by Chris Hudson with a book from a different gender series from another publisher. Personally, I know which book I would rather show my colleagues, friends and family.

compare-covers

We’ll say nothing about the price (though obviously this matters, especially if the book buyer is an ordinary person with limited funds).


Thesis versus book, simply put

1 May 2015

On an entirely different matter, my colleague Paul Kratoska from NUS Press in Singapore wrote the following today:

The advice is simple. All the writing most students do up to and including the PhD is about showing what the writer knows. A book is about showing readers something they don’t know. To do that, it’s necessary to repeat some things they probably do already know, but the heart of the matter is explaining what a researcher has found that’s new and doing it in a way that readers will understand.

The job of the publisher is to try to figure out if the topic will attract enough readers to make this a viable endeavour. Authors can help by writing for as broad an audience as seems reasonable. The editor of the Journal of Asian Studies suggests adopting the “one-over rule” – writing something that will interest readers who are adjacent to the author’s work geographically, and adjacent in terms of discipline. It’s sound advice. In this case the issue is writing for readers who don’t do [disciplinary field of book concerned] but would be intrigued by work from a writer who is.

Wise words!


Indie authors – unstoppable?

18 May 2014

As usual, I attended the London Book Fair in mid-April (the last time it will be held at Earls Court in west London due to the fair’s ballooning size). In part this was to meet with authors and talk business with our partners. However, in addition, with its excellent seminar programme and hundreds of exhibitors promoting new products (e.g. in ebook conversion), the LBF is an ideal venue to explore new trends in the world of publishing.

One phenomenon really starting to have an impact is self-publishing. In general publishing, the number of so-called ‘indie titles’ is growing in double digits annually with self-published authors likely to account for half of all books listed on Amazon within the next year or so.

This upsurge could be seen at the LBF where the seminars aimed at authors were packed tight with crowds of attendees listening outside as well.

LBF-author-seminar

So far, self-publishing has not really affected scholarly publishing because of the gatekeeper effect of the peer review process. Nonetheless, with more and more scholars working collaboratively and going down the Creative Commons route to produce course book material (for instance), that situation is likely to change.